Comb (yisanunu)

Yaka peoples

Not on view

This figurative wooden comb (yisanunu) was worn by a high-ranking Yaka man as a symbol of his status. At the summit of its head is a slender vertical projection with two lower lobes. This projection depicts a coiffure or headdress associated with a high-ranking male, among whom distinct headgear was a symbol of status. The tapered, oval-shaped face is dominated by a bulbous, upturned nose underneath which is the mouth, rendered as a triangle-shaped depression. Set into deep cavities below a slightly projecting brow, the rounded eyes are punctuated at the center by a horizontal line, which gives them impression of eyes narrowed in concentration. Semi-circular ears project from either side of the head. A single tooth projects directly from the base of the head, tapering into a soft point; given this singular projection, this example may have functioned as a hairpin. The surface of the comb is unevently smooth, varying in color from dark red-brown at its apex to deep honey-brown at the tips of the teeth.

Combs such as this example were worn by northern Yaka dignitaries as hair ornaments prior to 1930. Many were made in the area of Popokaba, but as they were traded extensively, some were collected as far as the court of the kyambvu at Kasongo Lunda. While the Yaka are matrilineal, their leadership is patrilineal: it is arranged through a strict hierarchy of paramount, regional, and village chiefs, as well as ritual specialists and diviners. Correspondingly, the art of the Yaka is also hierarchical, with much of it reserved for specific religious or chiefly users. The iconography of these combs reinforces the societal role of their wearers through the depiction of the multitude of coiffures and headgear used to distinguish Yaka dignitaries (see also 2011.11.1–.4 and 2011.11.6–.7).

The triple-lobed hairstyle or coiffure seen on this example is called bwene (bweni, plural), and was worn male land chiefs or original land owners (kalamba) as a symbol of their authority. Bweni were crafted from raffia using a variety of handweaving techniques; while the form of the headpiece often varied among Yaka lineage clans, they commonly had one to three longitudinal crests running from front to back (see British Museum Af1907,0528.137). Certain historical headgear and hairstyles were depicted on these combs, even though those styles were frequently updated. Carvers likely elected to represent these historic fashions to suggest a link between the wearer and revered individuals of earlier generations. Exemplifying this, the bweni were said to have been modeled upon the muhanda, a crested hairstyle formerly worn by both men and women that involved parting or shaving the hair into ridges before oiling, plaiting, and arranging it over a woven support. While little is known about the function of these combs, Arthur Bourgeois has suggested that they implied the power of their male wearer. (Bourgeois 1980, 46).

The carving of the miniature forms is stylistically and iconographically related to the way that Yaka sculptors gave figurative definition to other artifacts ranging from slit gongs to whistles to statuettes used by ritual specialists. The faces and hairstyles seen on these works also evoke those on masks produced for boys’ initiations, which in turn evoke the coiffures and headgear of the male elite. Thus, the use of this sculptural convention across media and usage reinforces ideals of certain elite men in Yaka society.

Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2016
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

Further Reading
Baaren, Theodorus Petrus Van., and Arthur P. Bourgeois. Iconography of Religions. The Yaka and Suku. Leiden: Brill, 1985.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. "Kakungu among the Yaka and Suku." African Arts 14, no. 1 (1980): 42.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. Yaka. Milan: 5 Continents, 2014.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. "Yaka and Suku Leadership Headgear." African Arts 15, no. 3 (1982): 30–35.

Comb  (yisanunu), Wood, Yaka peoples

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